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The Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) is pleased to present African American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce and the Politics of Race at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington Street, October 27, 2018–March 3, 2019 in the Exhibit Hall, 4th Floor North.
Featuring work from a wide range of practices including cartooning, sign painting, architectural signage, illustration, graphic design, exhibit design and product design, the exhibition is the first to explore how African American designers in Chicago worked across different media and practices to define a role for African Americans in the design professions between 1900 and 1980.
The exhibition is accompanied by a symposium The Designs of African American Life on November 2–3 at the Chicago Cultural Center. While the exhibition celebrates the works of Chicago-based graphic artists, the symposium gathers scholars and design practitioners who address all aspects of design in African American life to go beyond Chicago and beyond graphic arts to take stock of current work in the field and explore new directions for research and practice. The keynote address by Jacquelin Goldsby of Yale University will take place on Friday November 2, at 5pm and will be followed by an opening reception for the exhibition on Friday, November 2, from 6 to 9pm Adam Green of the University of Chicago will give the closing talk the following day at 3:30pm.
Black designers in Chicago pushed back against long-standing design conventions that traditionally diminished the potential of African Americans; they also navigated and seized a measure of power in often-racist workplaces. Designers such as Charles Dawson, Emmett McBain and Eugene Winslow were also decisive in using commercial art as a site to advance African American political causes, from the Exposition of the American Negro in 1940 to the founding of Burrell McBain Advertising in 1971. As negotiators between businesses and Chicago’s black community, they raised still-relevant questions about how, and with what consequence, African Americans engaged commercial design as a site to shape the politics of uplift and protest.
By emphasizing both the design and the lives of the designers, the exhibition traces how African American design professionals shaped images of the race and fashioned their own careers during major transformations in black life in the twentieth century, from the Great Migration to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond.
African American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce and the Politics of Race is funded in part by the Terra Foundation for American Art and The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, as part of Art Design Chicago, an exploration of Chicago’s art and design legacy. The exhibition was organized by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and the department’s Visual Arts staff with the assistance of guest curators Christopher Dingwall (Oakland University) and Victor Margolin (University of Illinois at Chicago).
The exhibition was designed by artist David Hartt, (University of Pennsylvania). Hartt's widely collected and exhibited work appears in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, where his exhibition, Stray Light (2011), focused on the interior design of the Johnson Publishing Company headquarters.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the African American population in Chicago was only 15,000 in a city of a million. We know from census records, newspaper advertisements and business directories the existence of dozens if not hundreds of black Chicagoans who worked in as “artisans” in fields from milliners, dressmakers and tailors to printers and sign painters.
The Great Migration deepened the foundations for African American design in Chicago. Between the two world wars, hundreds of thousands of African Americans left the Jim Crow South for what they hoped would be better lives in northern cities. They made the south side of Chicago into Bronzeville, the home for a veritable renaissance in African American culture that would rival Harlem. The Chicago movement was led by a younger generation, and their dazzling images helped to establish the visual look for the urban experience of black middle and working classes.
As a hub of American capitalism and of African American cultural life, postwar Chicago offered solid foundations and expansive new opportunities for African American designers. Wartime industry and a booming postwar consumer economy drew African Americans to Chicago in ever greater numbers, even as racism continued to constrain society. Designers responded by claiming an equitable share of American prosperity for themselves and for black people. The Johnson Publishing Company (1942-present) defined the postwar era of African American design. Founded by John H. Johnson, Johnson Publishing's flagship magazines—Negro Digest, Ebony, and JET—became widely-circulated icons of black style.
The triumph of the Civil Rights Movement coincided with a dramatic restructuring of the American economy that would transform the conditions and meaning of African Americans design in Chicago. Industrial corporations abandoned the south and west sides in search of cheaper labor and government support for working people was reduced. Black Chicagoans adopted a variety of political responses, from organized protests for housing and jobs to mass uprisings against white-controlled power structures. The more militant politics of Black Power would infuse the visual culture of Black Chicago, in places such as the pages of the venerable Chicago Defender and outdoor posters for churches, theaters and community organizations.
Exhibition Symposium and Public Programming
Exhibition Sympoisum: The Designs of African American Life
University “Common Things Surprise Us: Black Chicago’s Artists and Models Balls and the Politics of Middlebrow(n) Taste”
Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St.
Marking the opening of African American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce, and the Politics of Race, this symposium gathers scholars and design practitioners who address all aspects of design in African American life. While the exhibition celebrates the works of Chicago-based graphic artists in fields ranging from sign-painting to doll-making, the symposium goes beyond Chicago and beyond the graphic arts in order to take stock of current work in the field and to explore new directions for research and practice. As they advance new narratives and methodologies that grasp the history of African American design, speakers illuminate critical problems at the intersection of art, politics, and everyday life. In addition to keynote addresses by Jacqueline Goldsby (Yale University) and Adam Green (University of Chicago), participants include Elspeth Brown (University of Toronto), Jason Chambers (University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign), Romi Crawford (School of the Art Institute of Chicago), Joshua Clark Davis (University of Baltimore), Michelle Fisher (Philadelphia Art Museum/City University of New York), Brenna Greer (Wellesley College), Kinohi Nishikawa (Princeton University), and Michelle Joan Wilkinson (National Museum of African American History and Culture).
Exhibition Lecture: Exhibiting African American Design in Chicago, 1900–1980
Thursday, November 29, 3–5pm
Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton St.
Exhibition curator Daniel Schulman, Director of Visual Arts at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, leads this conversation on the themes and topics emerging from the exhibition African American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce and the Politics of Race and the impact on current scholarship on the intersecting fields of design and commercial history in Chicago. For additional details, visit newberry.org.
Visitors to the exhibition, funded in part by the Terra Foundation for American Art and The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, as part of Art Design Chicago, are invited to the new Welcome Center at the Chicago Cultural Center (77 E. Randolph St.) to learn more about the exploration of Chicago’s art and design legacy. Additionally, Art Design Chicago and its public engagement campaign, #JustGoSeeIt are providing a free, collaborative art-making experience for all audiences. At the Welcome Center, located just inside the Randolph Street entrance, Art Design Chicago is one of four quadrants engaging Chicagoans and visitors alike in Chicago’s rich cultural offerings. The Welcome Center at the Chicago Cultural Center is a project of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), and provides a welcome orientation and information for guests visiting the greater Millennium Park Campus.
Current and Upcoming Exhibitions at the Chicago Cultural Center
Garland Gallery, 1st Floor South
Explore Chicago’s music legacy through ragtime, jazz and blues in an exhibition that highlights the contributions of important places and people that shaped the music scene. Seldom-seen original artifacts will be on display including sheet-music, rare 1920s records with quirky period graphics–and even the original 1932 telephone booth from the old Sunset/Grand Terrace Café from which the actual music can be heard. The scope is broad and surprising–Ragtime morphs into jazz, Blues transforms into modern gospel, and it all echoes throughout the contemporary genres of House and Hip Hop.
Through January 6, 2019
Michigan Avenue Galleries, 1st Floor South
As part of the Year of Creative Youth, the Chicago Cultural Center worked in collaboration with four local community organizations to feature the work of young artists.
In collaboration with Changing Worlds
Gallery Talks on October 18 & January 3, 5:30–6:30pm
During the 2017-2018 academic year, Changing Worlds collaborated with Chicago Public Schools educators and 11- to 13-year-old students from Pilsen, Back of the Yards and the Near West Side. During this project, 250 youth created visual and poetic imagery examining their local challenges and celebrating community leaders working for positive change. After exploring these networks of support for peace and non-violence, youth had ample inspiration for their poems, original drawings and posters and handcrafted lightboxes that signify peace, hope and community. Changing Worlds invites you to experience how youth are responding to Chicago violence and offering their own understanding of the culture of care and concern that exists for their communities.
In collaboration with Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance
Gallery Talks on November 1 & 29, 5:30–6:30pm
The Garfield Park Conservatory's iconic Fern Room is recreated at the Cultural Center, bringing a multi-sensory experience of the beauty, history and nature to downtown. Through a series of art and science-based activities, thousands of "ferns" were created by visitors to the Conservatory's free weekly drop-in family programming held throughout the summer. The Conservatory's Urban Roots teen interns provide interpretation of the exhibit, detailing each featured fern species and the room's history.
In collaboration with Studio Arts & Exhibition Program (SAEP), Puerto Rican Arts Alliance
Gallery Talks on September 20 & November 15, 5:30–6:30pm
SAEP's teens made a selection of historical portraits marking important moments in Puerto Rican art history. The exhibit is an experimental painting installation taking visitors through the chronological colonial turmoil that shaped the face and identity of Puerto Ricans past and present. The Studio Arts & Exhibition Program (SAEP) enrolls 105 teens in after-school and summer Studio Arts programs in residency at two locations, Humboldt Park Field House and the Roberto Clemente Community Academy.
In collaboration with Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education
Gallery Talks on October 4 & December 13, 5:30–6:30pm
How are voices and stories from overlooked, liminal social spaces elevated? How are marginalized cultural perspectives depicted to convey new ideas of self and community that are often sidelined by a larger historical narrative? Students from North-Grand High School attempt to tackle these questions through the creation of multidisciplinary artworks that examine how history and culture are manifested through art and and how they themselves can find agency by re-presenting the social and cultural. Teaching Artists Marc Fischer and Jose Luis Benavides have collaborated with teachers Karen Furlong and Lisa Welsh to create this exhibition.
Through January 6, 2019
September 28, 7pm: Carriage: A Site-Responsive Performance by Matty Davis and Ben Gould
Chicago Rooms, 2nd Floor North
Exploring architecture through themes of barricade, convening and gesture come together in this sculptural exhibition presented in three suites.
Jeff Carter works from images of conflict zones sourced online to develop a series of sculptures that explore the “architecture of the barricade.” His interpretations rely on forms that express aggressive dynamics and raw utility, yet are carefully integrated and intentionally crafted.
“Board-up” and “Lean-to” are the latest evolution of Faheem Majeed’s “Shacks and Shanties” installation series. The works speak to the visual signs of devaluing neighborhoods – the board-up initially serving to protect the investment of the house while serving as a clear notice of abandonment. The lean-to is the stripped-down form of the shack, the simplest form used for shelter and survival.
Susan Giles explores the role of hand gestures in to remembering monuments. The lines and shapes made by our gestures build an abstracted, mediated form that represents a single monument – a desire to make memory physically tangible.
October 27, 2018–March 3, 2019
Expo 72, 72 E. Randolph St., across the street from the Chicago Cultural Center
Just before the turn of the century, the popularity of the bicycle in America was at an apex, and the majority of American-made bicycles were being produced by Chicago-based manufacturers. Through designed items such as advertisements, brands, objects and spaces, this exhibition looks at how design has shaped how Americans think about bicycles – something familiar to us all. The exhibition is part of Art Design Chicago.
All exhibitions at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington Street, are presented by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE). Building hours are Monday–Friday, 10am–7pm, Saturday–Sunday, 10am–5pm; closed holidays. Admission is FREE. For information, visit chicagoculturalcenter.org, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram @ChiCulturCenter.
Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events
The Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) is dedicated to enriching Chicago’s artistic vitality and cultural vibrancy. This includes fostering the development of Chicago’s non-profit arts sector, independent working artists and for-profit arts businesses; providing a framework to guide the City’s future cultural and economic growth, via the 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan; marketing the City’s cultural assets to a worldwide audience; and presenting high-quality, free and affordable cultural programs for residents and visitors. For more information, visit cityofchicago.org/dcase.
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